Art For Art Sake – Part 2

Was it worth while for Poussin to sacrifice the effect of his landscape composition, his painting of foliage, sky, air, his drawing and modelling of form, to so literatesque an incident as a voice from the tomb ? Sir Joshua Reynolds has said, with his usual caution : ” I fear we have very scanty means of exciting those powers over the imagination which make so very considerable and refined a part of poetry. It is a doubt with me whether we should even make the attempt.” He might have added that the attempt to excite the powers of the literary imagination is not only a failure because of the inadequate capabilities of painting, but that it makes all pictorial qualities in the picture a partial failure also because of their subordination to the literary idea. If an artist wish us to hear, let him use poetry, oratory, or music ; if he wish us to see, let him employ painting, sculpture, or architecture. The two cannot serve double purposes with any degree of satisfaction except perhaps in the case of historical pictures, which are designedly more illustrative than creative.

It seems then that the painter’s ideas are limited to such subjects as may be comprehended by the unaided eye independent of time-movement, and that his language is limited to such symbols of ideas as form, color, light, shade, air, and their kind. When, therefore, people call for ideas in painting — meaning thereby literary, anecdotal, moral, or religious ideas—and overlook with scorn the pictorial motives of the artists, they are simply asking that painting shall abandon its now proper purpose. On the other hand, those persons who maintain that “An artist has no business to think at all,” or that painting should be devoid of ideas, are equally in error on the other side. The conservative answer to the question, “What is meant by an idea in art ? ” is, first, a pictorial idea—an idea conforming to the limits of painting. Whether an idea is pictorial or not may be tested in the first place by questioning if it will exist of itself and without a title. If we apply this test to the great pictures of the Florentines and the Venetians, they will bear it without flinching. Does it affect the beauty of their pictures if their women be called by the name of Madonna, Venus, Mona Lisa, or Fornarina ? Does it spoil the story, or play sad havoc with the plot, if their men be known as Apollo, St. George, the Man with the Glove, or Jacopo the Gondolier? Not a bit of it. The pictures live to-day not by virtue of name or story, but by virtue of their modelling, coloring, light, character, force, power—all of them pictorial motives. Titian’s so-called “Sacred and Profane Love” has been well instanced as an example of art existing for its own sake. No one knows what the picture should be called, or why the two figures, one on either side of the marble fountain, have such different expressions no one needs to know in order to enjoy the picture’s beauty ; no one cares to know, except perhaps the historian of art, seeking facts instead of aesthetic pleasure. This is equally true of the Dutchmen. Brouwer’s topers, Hals’s smiling musicians, Steen’s fete scenes, Wynant’s landscapes by any other name, or no name, would be quite as beautiful. Here in America is Rembrandt’s picture called, for purposes of identification, ” The Gilder ; ” does it affect our enjoyment of it that we do not know who was the sitter? Who ever thought of asking what a Tiepolo group is doing, or whether Fortuny’s ” Serpent Charmer ” influenced the snake with his stick or with his voice ? The canvases are pieces of color, light, air, painted brilliantly, sympathetically, artistically, and that is all there is to them. Their painters never intended them to be anything else.

A painter’s idea, then, should be pictorial, but there is still a further condition imposed upon it. A mathematical problem on the black-board may in one sense be pictorial ; that is, it may be comprehended by the unaided eye, but it would hardly do to put on canvas as a picture. Why ? Because it appeals to the intelligence only, it does not in any way stimulate the emotions. In other words, it is not of the realm of beauty. A. pictorial idea should be a beautiful idea, but you must not misunderstand my use of the word “beauty.” I do not mean merely the straight nose, the rounded arm, the perfect proportion which Winekelmaun thought to be at once the body and the spirit of Greek art. Nor do I mean that quality plumed with iridescent wings or circumscribed by various definitions which we find in treatises on aesthetics. As usually defined by metaphysicians, ” beauty ” is not sufficient to account for the pleasure we feel in the presence of fine art. The word is capable of a broader meaning. For beauty may be in all things, in the mind that thinks, in the hand that paints, in the nature that is painted. It is as much in the personality of the painter as in the universality of the outer world. It does not lie in the refined alone, but in the true, the characteristic, the forceful—yes, even in the singular, the abnormal, and the ugly, provided they are not repulsive or disgusting. Something there must be, either in the work or the worker, that strikes home to our emotional and sympathetic nature, else there is no true art.

A painter may make a pictorial presentation of a cartman beating his horse (such was the subject of a recent Salon picture), or a group of monkeys dressed in men’s clothing holding a court of divorce, and these themes may interest or amuse us temporarily, but they do not in any way rouse our emotions with the feeling of beauty. Such pictures may possess a beauty of color or form, and they may live and be considered art for that reason, but certainly not by virtue of the beauty in their subjects. Oftentimes artistic execution, color, light, air, save an otherwise commonplace or repulsive theme ; but that is no argument for the repulsive theme, often as painters seek to make it. It is color, light, and masterly handling of the brush that redeem Regnault’s “Execution without Judgment,” Fortuny’s “Butcher,” and Rembrandt’s “Dressed Beef.” The subjects or the ideas they convey are hardly beautiful in themselves, but are made so by superior artistic treatment, just as many a weed loses its natural bitterness under a salad dressing. Yet people rather like the Regnault “Execution” scene, not because of its color and handling, but because it hints at a ghastly story, and they like the humanized monkeys, not because of any pictorial quality, but because they are funny. A jest is easily grasped, but a new beauty, a sentiment, a state of feeling, is rather staggering, especially if the subject be of a humble or commonplace character. Should an artist choose to paint a weather-stained barn with open double doors and low-hanging eaves, he might show a beauty of sunlight in contrast with the deep warmth of the interior shadows ; he might show that sunlight changing an edging of straw into bright gold, transforming a whitewashed beam into a centre of light, or turning –a horse’s coat into a mirror of silken sheen ; he might flood the interior with atmosphere and color it with luminous hues, pitch it with truest values, tone it in perfect accord, but it is not likely that the ” average person” would see these beauties. He is looking for something else. He wishes an art of ideas, as though these revelations of color, light, shade, air were not of them-selves ideas worthy of his consideration. But he wishes another kind of idea, and so, for the purpose of again illustrating the anecdotal side of popular art, let us put in the picture what is desired, and we shall then have Mount’s well-known picture called “The Barn.”

Suppose, then, that on the floor of the barn, near the double doors, is seated a group of truant boys playing the forbidden game of cards, and having the bad boy’s good time ; suppose that along the side of the barn, unobserved by the boys, comes the sturdy farmer, with indignation written upon his face and a birch in his hand. Now we have a story in it, and the ” average person ” is well pleased. The idea is quite apparent. The boys are certainly in for a flogging. But let us put the story part of the picture upon the rack and test it by those requisites of a painting which we have thus far advanced. Is it pictorial ? Yes ; it may be said to fill fairly well that first condition because there is little or no time-movement to the incident, though the subject is hardly serious enough for painting, and would be better shown by black and white illustration in some comic weekly. There is a place for art of a literary nature, but it is not on canvas ; it is on the pages of books and magazines. There it holds proper position, not as purely pictorial creation, but as illustration — sight help — to the running text. No one would deny for a moment the raison d’etre or the usefulness of this form of art, but it should not show itself in oils, any more than miniature work should appear in ceiling fresco. But let us return to the analysis of the barn picture and test its story by the second condition of painting. Is there anything beautiful in the prospect of boys getting a flogging ? Does the story appeal in any way to the emotions usually excited by the presence of beauty ? Not at all ; it is an incident that stimulates our momentary curiosity, like that of the cart-man beating his horse, but we cannot say that we are benefited, charmed, or emotionally pleased by the representation of either scene. The story in the picture has no place there : first, because it is not beautiful ; secondly, because it has a distracting interest which draws our attention away from those suggestive features of sunlight, shadow, color, and atmosphere which are beautiful and which should attract the chief notice of the observer.

Just here I fancy you are beginning to wonder if all art ideas are to be made up from barns, haystacks, horses coats, tones, colors, and values. No, not all of them ; but why not some of them ? If the painter sees new beauties in such objects—beauties that we do not see—and can make them apparent to us on canvas, why should he not do so ? Why should we not regard his work in the light of its intention, crediting it with what success it may possess ? Why should we cast it aside because it is not an ideal Madonna, or a sublime piece of classical allegory? We can take pleasure in a china plate and never think of dashing it to the floor because it is not a Sevres vase; and we can enjoy lyric poetry without lugging in a thought of the epic productions of Dante and Ariosto. Why should we not enjoy the slighter quality of painting in the same manner?

I am aware that all this sounds to you like mod-ern heresy. Perhaps it sounds so because through the mother-country, England, we have been educated more in literature than in art, and because we conceive ideas by words more than by pictorial forms. Moreover, we have been taught by history and theory that the aim of art is the grand ideal, that it has to do with great moral truths, that it is a teacher of men, and should deal with lofty themes of human interest. Such, indeed, was once the aim of art, but I would have you discriminate between what was and what is; I would have you avoid the application of old standards to new work. Nothing enduringly lasts to us. Civilization moves on ; it never turns back. History may multiply analogies; it does not repeat likenesses. Philosophies, laws, arts, sciences, even religions change. Art, in Greece, in perfect accord with the Greek civilization, aimed at the ideal, and in that same age there was a religion of the gods and the demi-gods, a morality which, to say the least, our modern teachers of moral science would not approve of, and a code of laws which, if in force among us today, would cause a revolution to-morrow. For our practical use their religion, ethics, and laws have disappeared. We have substituted others more conformable to our needs. Why should we so persistently cling to their obsolete and (now) inappropriate art-ideal ? Greek life was ideal, the absorption of the many into one, unity in art-craft and state-craft ; modern life is individual, in-dependent, self-reliant, self-assertive. Where the Greek sculptor modelled the ideal, the contemporary French sculptor models the individual. I do not say which is the better or the nobler aim, nor what should be our civilization and art ; I state simply what exists. So again in painting, we should not judge modern art by that of the Early Renaissance period for its aim is totally different. Italian painting started as an engine of the Church and was a means of illustrating and teaching the Bible to those who could not read, and a decoration of church walls and altars ; but are there any such necessities to-day ? Is painting an engine of any creed, sect, or moving power ? Is it a decorator of churches? Is it anything but a means of sympathetic and emotional expression given to the individual man ?

Perhaps this change in art-motive can be illustrated by taking, for example, that essentially mod-ern product, the landscape. In its early days Claude and Poussin regarded it as an Arcadian setting within which could be placed Ionic and Corinthian temples, Roman aqueducts, peopled harbors, legions of soldiers, groups of nymphs, classic shepherds, and mythological gods. The whole conception was classic, eclectic, ideal; grandeur of composition and beauty of line were predominant, and the object of it all was to show the ideal dwelling-place of the gods—the new Garden of the Hesperides. With Romanticism in the early part of this century the conception changed, and landscape became beautiful by reason of its association with mediaeval or modern heroes and their deeds. The sea stretched out upon canvas, not for its grandeur of power, its wealth of shifting colors ; but as the element upon which, between wave and sky, tossed the raft of the Medusa, or the boat containing Don Juan and his shipwrecked companions drifted on its hopeless way. The forest was not painted so much for its beautiful masses of varying greens, reds, and yellows, shotten with sun and with shadow, as it was for the refuge of Attila, Robin Hood, and Carl von Moor. The rising knoll of ground, with its sweeping lines of beauty, was but the resting-place of the castle where mediaeval knights revelled and drank deep, or Manfred lived and died in solitary remorse. The desert existed not so much for its white light, rising heat, and waving atmosphere, as for the home of the roaming lion, or the treacherous highway of the winding Bedouin caravan.

In both the classic and the romantic landscape the painter took his theme from the historian, the poet, or the romancer; but the modern landscapist has forsaken both of these conceptions. He has come to discard associations, and to point out to us that there is a beauty in the forms and colors and lights of nature aside from man or his doings. The pale light that glows along the eastern hills at daybreak ; the splendors of the sun as it sinks in the west ; the trooping along the sky of gray rain-clouds ; the masses of deep-colored foliage.; the mists that float along the marshes ; the sheen on the surface of a woodland pool ; even the white light on the bark of the birch, are all beauties to him. The mighty stretch of land that Claude and Poussin fancied, with its representation of lofty mountains, beetling precipices, and far-away valleys has been abandoned. In its place the modern landscape painter chooses some quiet country lane, a marsh, a patch of some field, or a corner of some garden. For the representation of nature upon canvas is not to be judged by its extent but by its essence. There is a delicate meaning in the humblest things about us. The meanest flower that blows may contain it. Bonvin saw it in the thistle and the bramble ; the Japanese reveal it in the stalk of a reed, or in the color of a bird’s wing. And to portray by means of emphasized form and color this essence of nature, to discover and interpret to us this delicate meaning, to make us see what the artist sees, and feel what he feels—to do this is one of the aims, perhaps the principal aim, of modern landscape painting.